Contact Prints


243 pages
ISBN 0-385-25102-5
DDC C813'





Reviewed by Gerald Noonan

Gerald Noonan was Associate Professor of English at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, and co-editor of A Public and Private Voice.


The title does not say it all, exactly, but it is a good indication of the characteristics this narrative has, and has not. The account of one man’s experience living, and teaching English, in an Arctic Indian settlement proceeds mostly in a sequence of short chapters — snapshots, contact prints — without the special emphasis or interpretation of close-ups, enlargement stills, magnifying lens, or the illusion of film’s continuity.

Joe, who has never met Indians before, flies by bush-plane to Fort Henrietta-Maria on the James Bay coast. And so begins a running encounter with Cree students (who learn some things in his language, and swear at him in their own), with local residents — including a French woman, Eskimo man, and Anglican minister — and with fellow teachers, feisty oddballs all.

Joe is forever snapping pictures surreptitiously, though the Indians know, and disapprove. Nonetheless, he learns some Cree, and goes along with the flow well enough that he is accepted more than other whites into the Indian community. At school break time, when other imported professionals fly south to the sunspots and civilization, Joe goes with an Indian clan on their ritual spring trek to hunt geese at a traditional encampment.

That section, probably the most personally observed, epitomizes the extent of Joe’s success in bridging the gap between white and red cultures — even though the two races are firmly separated shortly after when their mixed shopping party is refused admission at a white post. Discrepancies between a larger white world and Indian culture are also firmly indicated in the undercover artistry of Joe’s fellow teacher, Iris Bickle, who creates “authentic” native masks under the pseudonym of a fictitious princess, Winnie Beaver. When the German magazine Stern sends two journalists to do a profile of this mystic source of Indian treasure, the stalwart reporters are easily fooled by Iris’s Hollywood staging.

The closing incident of the book suggests that the Christian church is likewise alienated from Indian life. Because of a new dam and potential flooding, the Anglican church, along with all other worthwhile buildings in the settlement, is to be floated by barge to the community’s new home across the water. The uprooting is too much for the church’s not-too-sturdy pillars and, as it floats off on its new mission, down it comes, steeple and all, crashing into the water and slicing in two the boat in which Joe is preoccupied snapping pictures. Any piece of wood is a life saver. “Grab the goddam cross,” cries the minister, de-barged along with his church and Joe and Joe’s Eskimo boatman. Joe grabs and is saved. The Eskimo drowns.

The incident has graphic significance perhaps, but the reader gets no encouragement — from Joe or the author — in its development. What you get is what you see is there. No particular shading or highlights. Contact prints from Joe’s camera — no more, no less.



Kreiner, Philip, “Contact Prints,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024,